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An Ounce of Prevention Has Varying Worth

tl;dr: Municipalities spend money in some interesting ways and sustainability always takes the hit.


The title of the blog post is a play on the old adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." The meaning of this is that if we are prudent and responsible from the beginning, oftentimes it pays enormous dividends over time. By investing resources earlier on, we can expend fewer amounts than we would if we waited for the problem to realize. A good example of this is a trend that is developing with health insurance providers. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were insured with United Healthcare. Out of the blue, we were contacted about a new program designed for people with Type-2 diabetes, which I have. The program included a CGM (continuous glucose monitor), a Fitbit, a scale, dietary information, and a juice blender. The hope was that all this equipment would help me lose weight and manage my blood sugar levels better. If this program were successful, then the consequences of long-term diabetes would be minimized, reducing the risk of having to go through far more expensive procedures down the road, ideally saving money in the process. The program worked, I lost almost thirty pounds, and the CGM was a complete game changer in how I managed my blood sugar levels.


There are tons of examples of how preventative steps can be absolute game changers, and I am sure it comes as no surprise that they are abundant in sustainability/climate change work as well. Many of these examples lie in a subset of climate change work called adaptation. Ultimately, there are two categories of actions when it comes to addressing anthropogenic climate change. Mitigation involves causality, which means we explore how to avoid the increase of emissions. Adaptation is the work of reducing vulnerability to the consequences of climate change. To say that we are currently vulnerable to climate change is an understatement. Let's paint the picture of what I am talking about.

The cost of natural disasters related to climate change is going up. Since 1980, the US has experienced 341 weather and climate disasters that have caused more than $1 billion in damages. The total cost of these 341 events is over $2.475 trillion. That is a serious amount of money, folks. It's actually enough money to pay every single person in the US Military (2.2 million people) their salaries for the next 14 1/2 years. A 2018 National Building Sciences report found that for every $1 invested in disaster prevention, $6 was saved in future disaster recovery. Using this logic, we could prevent spending $2.475 trillion by spending only $396 billion. That still seems like a huge amount, but remember, if we had started this back in 1980, we could have spread this out over 43 years and it would work out to be about $9.2 billion a year. There are about 92,000 municipalities in the US, resulting in an average cost of $100,101.11 a year to each local government. This starts to look a little more affordable, especially when you consider that a new police cruiser costs about $60,000 and almost all towns seem to have enough money to buy lots of those.


This all boils down to being either proactive or reactive. When it comes to sustainability work, our efforts seem to be largely reactive in nature. This is a problem, because if we do not invest heavily in climate adaptation, then the reality is that by 2100, climate related disasters will cost America $2 trillion EVERY YEAR. This is not doomsday speculation; the facts speak pretty loudly. In 2022, there were 18 events that cost over $1 billion. The total cost of those 18 disasters was $114.3 billion. In 1980, there were only three disasters that cost over $1 billion. Those three events (Southern US flooding, Hurricane Allen, and Central/Eastern US drought if you are curious) cost us $43.1 billion. You would have to combine all of the climate calamities from 1980-1985 to even match the number from 2022. These events are happening more often, and it's costing us much more to recover from them. Being proactive is the smart thing to do. Many municipalities don't want to invest in proactivity when it comes to climate change or sustainability, but the weird thing is that they are all in on proactivity when it comes to law enforcement.

As you can see, in 2018, $118.8 billion was spent on law enforcement. What you can also see is that police spending has increased every single year, with very few exceptions. When you factor in the cost of corrections, we spend an insane amount of money keeping society "orderly." You can see from the chart below that for almost thirty years (1985-2015), the highest expense for state and local government was keeping "dangerous" people away from the rest of us. Per capita, we lock up more people than all other countries in the world except 4 others. El Salvador locks up the most, followed by Rwanda, Turkeminstan, Cuba, and then the US. That's some pretty elite company to be in, isn't it? Currently, there are 1,675,400 people in jails and prisons in the US. We set up laws and spending that proactively incarcerated targeted populations, many of them based on some pretty interesting drug policies. We are obviously willing to spend lots of proactive money on corrections and law enforcement.

This is why I am so frustrated because of the hypocrisy of so many municipalities in the US regarding proactive and reactive spending and their priorities. Most of them fully embrace proactive policies for things like law enforcement and justify the increased number of officers, new equipment, the cool new SWAT team that serves very little purpose whatsoever, etc. Then, when looking at critical initiatives like climate adaptation and sustainability, suddenly they simply don't have the funds to address these issues and say that "we don't even know if the science supports that this is even real." I used to believe that the issue was tangibility. For the most part, you can see crime occuring and its impacts. This makes it easier for local officials to want to protect their communities. It is harder to see the consequence of this year being warmer than the last. Except, now we do have tangible evidence! The Colorado River dropping 30 feet is not imaginary, it exists for all to see. Images of people experiencing stronger and more frequent tropical storms are splayed out for all to witness in real time by Jim Cantore on the Weather Channel. We have the facts, we have the evidence, but what we don't have is the willingness from local governments to start being even the least bit proactive when it comes to this critical issue. What we need to do is demand that local elected officials start taking this issue seriously, or replace them with individuals who will, because your quality of life literally depends on it. Is an ounce of adapatation prevention worth not paying $2 trillion a year later? Seems to me that the answer is fairly obvious. If it were only this clear to your local elected officials.


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